Matta’s plan falling into place quickly

Before Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. even played a game for Ohio State, they were handed a Final Four pamphlet by their coach.

Six months later, the sensational freshmen – part of a group known as the “Thad Five” – get to see what it’s really all about. The Buckeyes (34-3) will be there to play Georgetown on Saturday.

“That was hopefully great motivation for them,” coach Thad Matta said. “I’m sure they forgot about it 10 minutes after the meeting, as kids normally do.”

That Final Four information was a small part of a manual each player received during the first team meeting in September.

“We believed in it from the start,” senior Ron Lewis said. “I’m just living a dream.”

To get to Atlanta, the Buckeyes made two significant comebacks in the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten champions have won 21 straight games, the longest streak in the nation. They won the NCAA South Regional final 92-76 to end Memphis’ 25-game winning streak.

“I believed (Matta) the first day I was on campus, when he was recruiting us,” Conley said. He showed us the same type of deal and a video of the Final Four. And that definitely stuck in my head through the whole summer workouts and beginning of the year.”

Oden, the 7-foot All-American who is Ohio State’s leading scorer and rebounder, and Conley were high school teammates for three straight Indiana state championships. Now they’re only two wins from Ohio State’s first title since 1960.

They were part of Ohio State’s most touted recruiting classes, along with David Lighty and Daequan Cook and junior college transfer Othello Hunter.

The “Thad Five” blended nicely with a group that included junior Jamar Butler and seniors Lewis and Ivan Harris. Butler was the only returning starter from last year’s team that won the league title and 26 games before losing to Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“They’ve had a tremendous impact,” Matta said of the new guys. “Maybe unlike anybody’s ever had before with the job that they’ve done.”

Still, the start of the season was challenging without Oden, who was recovering from right wrist surgery and not expected back before January.

“That was kind of my big thing – do we have the ability to get to the Final Four when our center’s hand won’t move?” Matta said. “The theme song for me, personally, every night when I drove home was the Merle Haggard song, ‘If I Make It Through December.'”

The Buckeyes didn’t have to wait that long.

Oden missed the first seven games, his debut coming only days after the Buckeyes’ 98-89 loss to North Carolina, the team that lost to Georgetown (30-6) in the East Regional final Sunday. He has since averaged 15.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks.

Despite playing only 24 minutes against Memphis on Saturday, Oden scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting and had nine rebounds.

During a 4 1/2-minute span in the second half when Oden was out after his third foul, Ohio State went from five points up to five down. When he came back, he blocked the first shot Memphis attempted and the Buckeyes finished with a 41-20 spurt.

In the two games before that, the Buckeyes overcame a 20-point deficit to beat Tennessee and came back from 11 points down in the second half against Xavier.

Oden fouled out against Xavier after his hard shove with nine seconds left in regulation. But after Xavier made only one free throw, Lewis hit a tying 3-pointer and Conley scored 11 points in overtime.

The Buckeyes last made the Final Four in 1999, when a team led by Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn lost to eventual national champion Connecticut. That trip later was expunged from the records because of NCAA violations, making their last official appearance in 1968.